Barry Winbolt's Blog

Accusations of bullying may be wrong

My job involves helping people understand the causes and effects of bullying at work. This is often called ‘raising awareness’.There is certainly a need for it; the term bullying is applied willy-nilly to any number of behaviours, and in many cases the term is misused. Sadly, there is no denying that genuine cases of bullying occur widely in the workplace, causing untold harm and in extreme cases real psychological damage to the victims. But the term has come to be more generally used to describe all sorts of unpopular behaviour, and because of the impact the term has – as we have seen in the media recently – the resulting reaction puts people on the defensive right away, forestalling any sensible debate or education in the organisation.

There has been a significant increase in demand for training sessions in the last year or so, and this has been linked to the need of organisations to manage performance in a more muscular fashion during a recession. In other words, because staff may need to be pushed harder, employers, and some managers, have anticipated that their attempts to ensure output – to use the term loosely – often in the face of dwindling resources, would result in counter-accusations of bullying by staff who resented the pressure.

I don’t know if there have been more accusations, though anecdotally there seem to be in the public and private sector organisations I go into. This turns on two main factors:

  1. Some managers are not very confident when managing people-related matters. This may not be their fault, as they are often not trained very well in how to motivate and engage staff. Clumsy efforts to get them to perform better may produce resentment in some employees. Incidentally, managers often say that they feel under skilled in this area and employers could do more to help (some do, hence the request for Bullying awareness for managers and Bullying awareness for staff).
  2. Because the pressure in on to ‘get a quart out of a pint pot’, under-performing staff who in the past may have been carried are now under scrutiny. In some cases the individual being ‘performance managed’ can lead to an accusation of bullying.

This brings me to a third aspect, and the main point of this post. The term bullying is widely overused. Bullying is a specific phenomenon which seeks to systematically demean and diminish an individual. It takes place regularly over an extended period, causes loss of confidence and self-esteem in the victim and in extreme cases results in psychological damage like depression, anxiety and even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For more information on this, read Bullying at Work. In a recent article in the Guardian, an employment law specialist is quoted as saying : “There should be zero tolerance of bullying in any workplace yet there is no rule book about what defines it.” (Bully for you, the Guardian, 27/02/10).

She has a point. When I started to work on this topic some years ago I quickly learned that there was no diagnostic checklist for identifying bullying at work. There are plenty of lists of examples (see Bullying at Work, above) of bullying behaviour, but bullying behaviour does not necessarily equal the process of systematically undermining someone psychologically which properly defines bullying. Shouting at some on the odd occasion, or shouting at everyone, would not qualify as bullying. Bad behaviour, Yes, out of order and in need of correction, Yes, but bullying? No.

This struck me as odd, and managers and staff I was speaking to were obviously confused and uncertain about how to identify bullying. We live in an age of information overload, yet there was no quick way to get simple information on how to identify workplace bullying. Something was needed.

So I wrote a checklist to enable people to understand and identify what constitutes workplace bullying, so they can take steps to a) prevent it from occurring, and b) to know, if an allegation is made, whether to call it bullying or to look for some other relationship problem between employees. This is the checklist I use in my training to help managers identify bullying, either in their own behaviour or between employees. It is also included in my Bullying Survival Guide, published in 2009.

Being on the receiving end of inappropriate management behaviour does not constitute bullying. I am not condoning rude or irresponsible behaviour in the workplace, of course staff should not be threatened, coerced, intimidated or treated disrespectfully. Behaviour like this is wrong and must be corrected. But it is not bullying. Neither is bullying associated only with managers; there are plenty of cases of peer to peer abuse and much of it is justly called bullying.

But the increasing and  careless use of ‘bullying’ as shorthand for ‘I don’t like the way I am being treated’ is in itself the cause of a problem. The ‘B’ word tends to produce a knee-jerk reaction at work and in the media, as we have seen in the last week or so, which means that informed discussion and corrective measures do not get implemented.

It also means that damaging accusations are made and often publicised before all the information is in (with no proof, in other words). For every accusation there is an accuser and an accused. I have seen a case where someone alleged to have bullied has been sent home to wait out an investigation, only for the accusation to be dropped. There are no winners in this and more damage is done. Furthermore the real problem – a troubled relationship between two people at work – is not helped and corrected as it could be enable the working relationship to function better. After all the two people will probably have to continue working together once the allegations have been dealt with.

It would be helpful to de-mystify bullying so that staff and managers understand what it is and, just as important, what it is not. Until this happens managers are often unsure of how to manage poor performance or afraid to step in to do it and performance-related discussions with staff can flare into hot debates about bullying. We know what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of bullying at work, and equally there is clear evidence on what sort of workplace culture tends to encourage bullying.

By the way, staff can be just as fed up as managers with a colleague who under-performs and then make false accusations to deflect attention away from themselves. Spurious accusations of bullying also mean that real cases may go undetected.

Nobody wins when debates about workplace behaviour are based on misunderstandings about what constitutes bullying. Providing staff and managers with proper information on this insidious and damaging behaviour, and what to do about it, is the responsibility of employers. But staff can also do something to help themselves by understand when bad behaviour may rightly be called bullying, and when it should not. Then, whatever the behaviour, it can be tackled appropriately.

Buy the Bullying Survival Guide now.

Free download: Bullying Quick Reference Guide.

See the Guardian article: Bully for you: Intimidation at work.

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